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ISSN: 0974-892X


Jan-July, 2014



The Feminist Escalation in Shobha De’s, Sultry Days

Dr. Deepa Tyagi

Assistant Professor of English, JSS Academy of Technical Education, Noida


Shobha De has been a dynamic personality of nearly three decades; she has been the reigning deity of the written world. For years she has defined what society has been about and focused on the world of man and matters.
De was born in Maharashtra on January 7, 1948; 7:21:00; 5:30 (E of GMT); 72E50; 18N58. According to Phyllis Chubb her fiery ascendant Sagittarius, as an odd numbered sign, sets the stage for an independent, open-minded, frank, generous, sympathetic, and truthful and just one individual.(Chubb:2002:issue03)
She has thrived on a well as survive the Polaris responses – the highest praise and the vilest criticism. Given to controversies, her literary status as a serious writer with social consciousness has been subjected to endless debates, ranging from heated to the most-heated arguments between her passionate adulators and merciless detractors. With three of her novels Socialite Evenings, Starry Nights and Sisters, taken up as course materials by The School of Oriental African Studies and a few Indian Universities, Shobha De is viewed seriously as a writer of literary and social worth.
Sultry Days is a different type of novel. De has presented the modern life-style of rich people. This novel was published in the year 1994. On the title page of the novel De writes:
For my children________
Ranadip, Radhika, Aditya,
Avantika, Arundhati
And Anandita________
Finally, a book by me                       
That they can read. (De :Sultry Days:1994:Cover page)
In this novel, Shobha De returns to the mainstream of ‘new woman’, says Sharad Srivastava in his article on the novel.
Nisha, the main character is the narrator of the novel. She can be grouped among the cluster of other women protagonists of De – Karuna and Mikki who are engaged in healthy striving because they guard the core of the ‘real self’ from the damages caused by the anxieties of life. Only the periphery of their personalities gets affected. They are strong willed, capable of making choice and directing their lives towards self actualization.  
After observing the determination in her to seek what she wants, rather than accept what others expect of them or impose on her. There is in her the absence of what Maslow calls the “Jonah Complex”, the tendency to run away from the responsibilities of life. Nisha seeks to fulfill what Maslow speaks of as:
‘……the drive to find evermore adequate means for self-expression to realize potentials, to develop greater degrees of effectiveness and competence, to be creative, to develop roles in life that are satisfying and worth-while’.(Maslow:1954:66)
Nisha’s main preoccupation is with self-actualization through seeking self-hood and identity, founded on a genuine commitment to the society.
As the novel unfolds, Nisha is found at a crucial stage of life. She is at the close of her teenage, a point of transition during which adolescent identification is subordinated to adulthood identification. Nisha, at this stage, shows an inclination for getting absorbed into sociability with her age-mates, especially of the opposite sex. She feels anxious about making choices and decisions about her future. Her mother is described as a “sad woman”, a “finicky housewife” living in her own world of self-pity and doubt and relieved only by the twice-a-week bridge session. Busy schedule of her father bothered her mother. Sometimes, she used to talk about this to Nisha.
‘Baby, talk to Papa. Tell him about all the plane-crashes in the papers. Why he is killing himself for the company? What has it given us – or him – besides a roof over our heads and a car with a driver? Papa will get ulcers – I read in the Reader’s Digest that stress leads to intestinal ulcers. Have you noticed how often he belches these days?’(Sultry Days: 23)
The above statement shows that Nisha’s mother is quite worried about the fate of her father and she is also suffering with the same feelings of loneliness. Nisha tries her best to console her, but fails. This way her father was losing respect from both Nisha as well as her mother. If we glance through the condition of the mother, we find her responsible for her neglect of duties towards Nisha. And that’s why does not get adequate love and direction from her.
Irrespective of her home conditions, Nisha appears to be a sensible lady with healthy needs, trying to explore the scope for individual commitment, growth and fulfillment. She is pictured in the novel as an energetic girl, who is high spirited and always ready to meet the hardships ahead. De has used many powerful symbols and images through which she delineates Nisha’s psyche, her need for self-expression and love and the frustrations she is confronted with. An individual’s need for love, in the context of marriage, defies classification into basic or physical needs and a higher order of psychological needs or growth needs. Love-needs form a complex form of drives and part of the complexity stems from the fact that in many ways it resembles the primary needs and in other ways it is similar to the secondary drives. In particular, the affection motive is closely associated with the sex motive.
Nisha’s need for a role model becomes overwhelming and she begins to resent identifying herself with the loneliness, dullness and complacency of her home. The artificiality and glamour of her parental home fails to do any good to make her feel contented. She acts out her dissatisfaction by turning rebellious. She anticipates trying out new roles and new looks. At this juncture, when she looks out for somebody to be her model, somebody to inspire and direct her, she needs friendship outside her home. This stage marks Nisha’s need for achieving increasing independence. This need for personal freedom is remarkably dominant need of all the young women protagonists of Shobha De.
Impressionable and sensitive, Nisha is fascinated by an unconventional young boy, Deb. The queer combination of shockingly outspoken manners, embarrassing habits, daringly uninhibited conduct, ruthless frankness and above all a passion for ideals that Deb stands from, immediately appeals to Nisha. She believes to have found in this angry young man her much sought model of a robust, capable of strong commitments and a visionary, capable of championing a crusade against the bourgeois complacency and hypocrisy.
Her urge for belongingness gets shelter in God’s company. She wants to revolve around him as the moon revolves around the earth. But initially God didn’t like it and he asked her to remain away from him. But Nisha was determined not to leave him and at last God also agreed. God laughed. He actually laughed a happy laugh! ‘OK’, was all he said? ‘OK’. The Sweetest words I’d ever heard. And that was it. It was settled. I was God’s girl. (Sultry Days: 9)
At one hand, the relationship between Nisha and Deb is flourishing whereas at the other the relationship between her mother and father was losing its fragrance. Nisha’s father turns out to be an unimaginative introvert suffering from certain complexes which defeat the love need of her mother. The need for self-expression is a very important trait in any individual to develop the possibilities of self-actualization. Self expression arises out of the exercise of freedom of choice and action by an authentic non-alienated individual. Her mother, who has already found herself surrounded by no one, totally breaks down when her father tells her about his affair with Sindhi woman. She starts crying on the day without having courage to ask any question in this respect.
Mother’s condition directly affects Nisha and she finds only Deb to talk to. But she is not sure whether he would listen to her or not. She was surprised to see the strong behavior of her mother as she told her that she was not leaving her father because the condition of weather was good in Mumbai and she did not want to go to Ahmedabad just because of poor weather condition. At this crucial moment of her life, she is busy in discussing the saris and status of her life. At the same time there was no sign of divorce from her father’s side. But Nisha is very conscious about the fate of their parents and she seeks help from God. He assures her help and says:
Just leave it to the experts, yaar. Sit back and watch the fun. She’ll [the Sindhi Woman] get cold in no time and that tight-ass father of yours will running home. In any case, I can’t see what any woman could find in an idiot like him. Such an ordinary bugger….. (Sultry Days:63)

Shobha De generally provides a negative image to her male characters. He can be a torturer or a cruel person dominating over the female characters. Same is the case with Sultry Days. All the females are being tortured by their corresponding male dominating parts. A variety of characters is presented by De in the present novel.
Lucio had a greater influence on Nisha’s life than anyone else. She feels equally comfortable with both Deb and Lucio. She considered him (Lucio) her best friend. After meeting him, Nisha notices a difference between the characters of Lucio and Deb. Deb is not at all interested in her looks whereas Lucio is very painstaking. He is interested in every minutest thing related to Nisha.
Nisha liked Lucio very much but at the same time this is also true that Deb didn’t like him at all. He used to call him a ‘bloody fairy’ and no man. He neither liked his voice nor him as a person. Nisha loves to be at the subordinate position to Deb and Lucio and their words are more than anything else to her. But her own ship to traditionalism is hidden by a modern young woman. She is unable to find a place to belong to, both within her home and in the world outside. She is happy in Deb’s company and clings to him. She says,
God and I laughed over these stories while telling ourselves they didn’t really touch us. We weren’t like them. We were different. We had depth. A sense of purpose. We were real people.(Sultry Days:120)
These words of Nisha express her deep seated wish to experience a feeling of belongingness through purposeful activity.
From the very beginning Deb is presented as an odious character. He possesses all bad qualities irrespective of the good ones. He has shown no sign of respect for anyone. The basic human tendency of being emotional is completely lacking in Deb’s behavior.  His picture, as presented by the novelist is as good as that of a brute. He comments brutally on everyone and anyone either it be Nisha’s mother or father. But this anti-hero of De is projected as a hero in his literary circle. He is a knowledgeable person having knowledge of Chaucer and Marx. He possesses Spanish and French language skills and his knowledge is enough for him to be vain. So many contradictory traits in his character push him to come out as a psychologically plausible and convincing character.
De has got a skill in presenting interesting characters. She puts forward both the good as well as the bad qualities so as to create the bond of relationship between the reader and the character. We are not able to develop a single psychological trait in us for a certain character. She tries to arise a mixed feeling of hatred and love. One of the basic components that strengthen the tie between the two is the concern for pattern. It is a particular mental condition which is a combination of a consciousness of needs of others, coupled with good will and appreciation. At this point of height in his career, Deb has stopped showing concerns for Nisha. Nisha does not expect Deb to be a sycophant and showers blatant exaggerations and eulogies. Nisha still at a corner of her heart expects Deb to speak a few words of encouragement and recognition for her.
De has presented many other male-female relationships. Sometimes the male counterpart appears to be somebody useless, inept, unworthy, contrite, apologetic and unwelcomed. Iqubal is also presented with equal force. He is a handsome and cunning fellow. His weakness is the beautiful college girls. He is a painter by profession but a real hypocrite.
Anil, a yuppie friend of Nisha is presented as a contrast to God. He is not much different from the other male characters of the novel. He lives his life at his own terms. He does not go to office everyday and works on his own with gadgets. His philosophy of life is proclaimed by him as:
‘It’s all relative. Why attach a moral to everything? It’s a running shoes hang-up for me and maybe it’s a fancy silk sari hang-up for you. Don’t tell me you don’t feel snobbish about certain things? I’ve seen it so often. Why do you criticize people who put plastic covers on their car seats and have a showcase full of imported souvenirs in their houses? Why do you look down on Vimal saris and fake silver jewellery made to look antique?’ (Sultry Days: 79)
The above statement shows the trivial outlook of male characters in De’s novels. All materialistic things are important for them but nothing spiritual has any significance. Anil came to be ‘an experimental cook’. He loves music. His love for jazz and Indian classical music and his particular liking for Jean Michael Jerri’s ‘futuristic and wild’ music show the highly developed aesthetic sense not only in the female characters but in the male characters also. Lucio is also a lover of music. He is a singer by profession and above all Deb is very good at flute playing.
Anil is frank enough to share his thoughts with Nisha. He tells her all about his beauty-treatments. His behavior and attitude are girlish. He is too conscious about the colors and his looks at special occasions and is totally different from Deb. According to Deb, “…the guy looks like the bawarchi…Pansy! Sissiy hai saala.  Hijda! …”8 The rough and tough appearance of Deb provides him more of a manly touch. De’s novels present all types of bodies in flesh. Sometimes she takes up to reveal the inner-self of homosexuals and at other times heterosexuals and lesbians. All the abnormal type of characters are spread from novel to novel and give us a chance to peep into their insides. It shows her rare insight into human nature.
This novel also throws light on various sections of feminine society. Shona is considered for a new campaign by the narrator. She is really six feet tall, with a different accent. A vivid picture of glamorous world is presented by the novelist where women are considered no better than cattle. Accidently, Anil met Shona at a major presentation. After the first meeting with her, he started following her everywhere. They decided to marry after sometime and just like all typical male characters, he feels that his wife should not work after marriage. He didn’t think it necessary to ask her about her wish. When Nisha enquires about Shona’s wish, he seems to be sure of his decision for her and suggests that Shona can attend some hobby classes to pass her time creatively or she can open a grooming school to train young models and for that she does not have to leave the house for any matter. Nisha’s enquiry proves Anil to be a passive male who is either afraid of his would be wife career growth or is not having faith in her. Anil when asked by Nisha, whether he loves Shona or not, ends weakly: ‘Yes … she’s … she’s a nice person’ (Sultry Days:83)
It is strange but true, that Anil feels free and ‘secure’ despite the insecurity and vague fears of Shona’s refusals. This reaction of Anil elucidates the planning for the future subjected to his marriage with Shona.
The structural motif of juxtaposition again reinforces the contrast between two dominant male characters that is, Deb and Anil. Irrespective of his plans for Shona’s future, Anil becomes irresistible for her because he is found to be always brimming with cheerfulness and is sensitive enough to notice and compliment even the small and ordinary accomplishments of Shona. Unlike Deb, he has his most endearing off-hand ways. Anil volunteers to take her around the city, assist her in all her campaigns and remembers to praise her choice of colors. He is not suspicious like Deb, but accommodative enough to make her feel at home in his company. The relationship between Anil and Shona presents a sharp contrast to that of Deb and Nisha. Anil and Shona came in contact within a few months whereas Deb and Nisha are still poles apart irrespective of the duration of time, they have spent together.
Anil has not told anything about their relationship to his parents and he seems to be sure of getting their permission without any problem. But as per Indian tradition, no parents allow their children to marry a person of their own choice. Anil’s thinking is that his parents didn’t expect him to marry: ‘…….one of the behenji with oily hair…’ (Sultry Days:110)
Unfortunately something messy happened after the official engagement of Anil and Shona (with their parents’ permission),   and the future plans of both of them were shattered. A mass- circulation weakly published nude photograph of Shona and that was the turning point in Anil’s life. He was neither in a position to break off his engagement nor to continue with it without his parents’ consent. Shona was helpless to say anything to poor Anil. She finds it difficult ti identify her with and to adjust in such crucial circumstances. She finds herself alone among the extremely self-absorbed and self-enfolded cluster of men. Another woman presented by De is Karen, Roy’s wife, who is hardly less than…… overbearing, imperious bitch…. (Sultry Days: 110)
She is a proud woman, a very complex and mysterious personality who is always busy in showing off her house like a show-room. To our great surprise, she is always ready to sell goods of her house to anyone who praises them. Roy’s lover Maitreyee is a typical Mumbai woman – who is always busy in maintaining her style and speech. She is proud of her artificial looks.
Other women characters are also not altogether different from the above discussed ones. Vampire One and Vampire Two feel very difficult to adjust with Karen. Vimla or Vampire One was a woman from Madhya Pradesh possessed a very charming and impressive personality. Narrator describes her gracious figure as: She moved through the premises with minions falling along the wayside, her hook-nose  and beady eyes making her resemble a hungry vulture in search of prey.(Sultry Days:70)
Ironical description of Vimla suggests the superficiality in the characters of women belonging to the world of glamour. After a vivid description of Vampire One, narrator describes Manju or Vampire Two.
Vampire Two gives a different look altogether. She is a fair but overweight woman. She has married two times. When she was a management trainee that was twenty years ago and the second time to an effeminate lobby manager at the hotel. She used to take care of two things in this world. The first is her career and the other her bank account. She is not taking care of her house either physically or materially. According to her, the only benefit of having a husband is to make him pay the bills and spend on the household expenditure. All the work which is supposed to be done by the woman of the house is being is done by the man and everything seems to be upside down at Manju’s house. Manju has no responsibility for her family and that’s why she is more careers oriented than Vimla: ‘I don’t believe in behaving or looking like a man in a man’s world’ (Sultry Days: 116). She thinks that being and behaving like a woman has its own advantages.
These two women present a different section of society far away from the ‘New Woman’ category. But still they can be treated as being representatives of the group of the women working for them. Perhaps, De wants to show the two faces of the working woman. One is working for glamour and the other is a business professional. The main motive behind the working of the women under both the categories is the same. They want to come out of the old sphere of traditional role of the women. De wants to lighten the dark feminine sphere with important issues related to matrimony and gender bias. If we see from the traditional perspective, marriage is considered as a religious ceremony in India. The basis of this institution is the basic requirement of love and safety.
If I analyze the condition of women in De’s novels, I feel that the sacred institution of marriage is losing its sanctity. Everyday a break in the marriage shows a drastic change in the society. The increase in the number of divorces proves the earlier proposition of marriages to be made in heaven wrong: ‘…..Who knows about marriage-sharriage …I’m happy as I am’ (Sultry Days : 118). When he does condescend to marry Nisha he says: ‘…..If you want, I don’t mind a shaadi-wadi – I know that will make you feel better. Theek hai - ….Give me my daal-roti, a warm bed, twice-a-week maalish and a daily screw. That’s all I expect…’ (Sultry Days: 159-160). But the reality is that he never marries Nisha.
The males are too self-absorbed and at times they behave. Sometimes, it becomes far more offensive. They pride their professional competency and expect their female counterpart to recognize it. But, when they fling mocking sneers at their wives’ behavior to attend a hobby class or to some charity, it smacks more of malice than of discourtesy.
God started meeting strange people like Yashwantbhai. He remains busy throughout the day in meetings at various places. He has been granted travel allowance. He has started getting royalty for the “Brit paper” and he also collects funds from editors. Nisha is bewildered at this engaged life of God where he has no time for her but impressed to see his demand, as many foreign publications started running after him for his columns. God comments at this: “Time is money yaar, ‘he’d say lazily, adding, Besides, I like screwing those fuckers”. (Sultry Days: 175)
God liked his present modern status. His plume had acquired a great reputation and it is now considered among India’s important literary journal. Although Nisha is also very happy at his success but she misses the olden days when God and she met frequently without any tension of a meeting. They were more relaxed then they are now.
God’s involvement with Yashwantbhai was also not altogether pleasing to Nisha. She thinks that God himself is creating problems for his own life. Under the pretext of winning a status, he was inviting troubles from all the sides. In spite of being warned by Nisha, God attached himself to Yashwantbhai’s task. Yashwantbhai who was looking for a reputed journalist, finds God perfect for his work. On the other hand God was willing for a person to take good care of him and provide him popularity.
God is worried for Nisha’s safety. Again we observe a change in the relationship of God and Nisha. He started caring for her. The real friendship emerges out of cod relationship between God and Nisha. Both of them enjoyed each other’s company. Deb started comparing Nisha with Maitreyees, Karens, Vimla and Manju:  ‘You aren’t like these other bitches. You have … what do you call it … character, You know?’(Sultry Days: 120)
God who is worried more for Nisha, than himself, suffers from the arranged murder by Yashwantbhai’s goons. The journey called life meets an end. Although God has achieved a lot in his friendship with Nisha, he has acquired name and fame during the course of the novel but the end of this anti-hero is very tragic. We observe a drastic change in the attitude of Nisha’s father.
Self-discovery takes place in successive steps in the life of Nisha. Anxiety is tempered by positive attitude struggles and frustrations are accepted as a part of human condition. Thwarting situations are also perceived as choice situations. Frustration, to her is not what happens to her but how she reacts to frustrating situations. She does not opt out of conflict. She is strong-willed and hence remains well-adjusted in the society. Her best energies are guarded from being usurped by unhealthy drives or depravations. The core of her resistance, integrity and sensitivity is spared of impairment. 
Nisha is a growth-oriented woman of Shobha De’s fiction. Her deep desire to identify herself and achieving wholeness is found persisting in the depths of her mind, pressing forever.
Nisha’s characteristic spontaneity and cheerfulness save her from being befogged by compulsive drives in moments of weakness and frustration. Frustration disorientates Nisha and she seeks comfort in the illusion that she would keep God at her will forever.
As it is with the other healthy protagonists, the very moment of extreme frustration is also a moment of self-realization. Nisha’s sense of judgment reduces the tensions. Her disappointment with the dysfunctional sexual life and the depravations do not become severely pathogenic because she associates sexual satisfaction not merely with pleasure or power but with self-confidence and psychological health. She does not resort to devious or manipulative tactics like the near-neurotics to manage her disappointment.
Ultimately Nisha makes a conscious choice to develop to the full status, which she is capable of reaching. As authentic by Shobha De, in several of her interviews, Nisha is to fall back on her own resourcefulness. The novel being open ended, Nisha’s decision can be interpreted in different ways. May be she is likely to pursue journalism that had always excited her and do some freelancing assignments for which she is naturally qualified. Whatever she choose to be, she means not to deny herself the rights and opportunities towards self-fulfillment. She decides to do her best in anything, she choose to do.
Curiously enough, the significant inculcation of a new aspiration and the emergence of a new horizon for Nisha being simultaneously at the very point of frustration. Nisha converts a frustrating situation into a choice situation for individual through the renewal of her psyche.
The unconventional and bold move of Nisha to reconsider her friendship so as to be her perfect real self, more than and beyond being a mere woman friend is not superficial or impulsive. Nisha is a convincing picture of a woman with very clear possibilities of self-actualization.
Her courage in retaining the will-power, her grit in finding redemption from negative forces like fear and hypocrisy, her decision to remain highly self-focused and her readiness to subject herself to self-examination are some of the positive traits. This spirit of internalization is a significant query of a growth oriented personality. Nisha strongly believes that the essence of life needs not be fear, futility and defeat.
Nisha refuses to be absorbed into the grotesque and amoral crowd of high society of the rich that is engrossed in pleasure and meanness. There are two options placed before Nisha. The one is, to swim along the current like Deb and the other socialites, by hushing up the voice of conscience and turning a sycophant to men like Yashwantbhai, the king of the underworld dons. In that case, she will get in return power, money and a comfortable life. The second option is, to evolve her image with values attached to it and, swear to live up to them. Nisha chooses the latter.
Nisha is a protagonist who has already orchestrated her life to achieve fulfillment.

  1. De, Shobha. Sultry Days (New Delhi: Penguin India, 1994)
  2. Phyllis, Chubb. “Famous or Infamous”, The Jyotish Digest (Vol. I June 2002) issue 3.
  3. De, Shobha. Sultry Days (New Delhi: Penguin India, 1994), title page.
  4. Maslow, Abraham H. Motivation and Personality (New York: USA, Harper, 1954), p.66.
  5. Mitra, Chandan. “An almost transparent woman”, The Sunday Pioneer Pulse, 13 September 1998.
  6. Sachdev, Radhika. “A Literary book club, thanks to Shobha De”, The Times Of India, 06 March 1998.
  7. Subramanian, Nithya. “Spread the word”, Case Study: Penguin Books India, 16-31 July 1997.
  8. Walker Alexander. Woman: Physiologically considered as to Mind, Morals, Marriage, Matrimonial Slavery, Infidelity and Divorce. Delhi: Mittal, 1987.
  9. Williams, Junita H. Psychology of Women. New York: W W Norton & Co., 1977.